Research Notes · 10/11/2013

Spider In A Tree

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Susan Stinson writes about her novel Spider In A Tree from Small Beer Press.

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Years: Writing Fiction about Jonathan Edwards in Northampton

Spider in a Tree is a historical novel set in eighteenth century New England. It centers around people in the household, family and community of theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards. People were enslaved in the Edwards household, as they were in the households of many other ministers and other affluent people in that time and place. Although I didn’t know that Jonathan and Sarah Edwards had an intimate, life-long relationship with slavery when I started researching the novel, once I learned that it was true, the tensions between religion and slavery became a central theme of the book.

There was a lot that I didn’t know about Jonathan Edwards when I started writing. Although I’ve lived in the Connecticut River Valley or the hills above it since 1987, he never came up, at least with the folks I saw in my daily life. I hadn’t grown up in New England, and never was assigned in school to read Jonathan Edwards’s most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I have no background in history, but, about ten years ago, I was spending a lot of time walking and writing in Bridge Street cemetery, which is very near my apartment. I started reading the gravestones and became interested in the lives of some of the people buried there, including members of Jonathan Edwards family. JE himself is buried at Princeton, where he died from smallpox resulting from an innoculation not long after he become president of the college there, but there are two markers in Bridge Street cemetery to remember him and his family.

Edwards was born on October 5, 1703, so, ten years ago, there was flurry of activity to mark his memory and his legacy. First Churches is on the site of the meeting house where he preached for twenty-three years, and one stream of the congregation is continuous from the founding of Northampton. I had already started to research Jonathan Edwards, so, when they held a conference in honor of the 300th anniversary of JE’s birth, I went. Sitting in those hard pews in the beautiful afternoon light from the stained glass window, I heard some beautiful, scholarly work (along with some that was less beautiful), and fell in love with the strange process of exploration and revelation that was my experience of reading and trying to understand JE’s work.

Pages from a program from the church service on the Sunday morning of that conference has been hanging on my bulletin board for ten years this Saturday. It includes reproductions of portraits of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards that I’ve been looking at all this time. Yesterday, I took it down, along with an outline that I have had posted there for ten years, as well. It is three sheets printer paper scotched taped together, with the edges colored in different crayon, to cheer me up, I think because I was staring at it so much. Also, to keep me from losing it when I took it down to work with. There is a big Word table that runs across the three sheets, with five columns, each headed with a title and a time marker: Faithful Narrative, May 30, 1735. Galleries Fall, Sunday, March 13, 1737. Honey, January, 1742. Bad Book, Spring 1744. Farewell Sermon, July 2, 1750. At the top, the whole book is referred to as Honey, in a sentence which reads: “Honey is about the pleasures of Puritanism.”

That didn’t entirely hold up. But Jonathan Edwards can evoke experiences of beauty, joy, grace and love with an unexpected earthiness and lyrical conviction that I found myself very responsive to. I didn’t want to pretend that he was someone other than who he was, to downplay the religious convictions that were the living center of his life and work or to minimize the realities what it meant to be living with people you thought you owned, even if that was far from unique to JE in Northampton, Massachusetts in the 1730s and 40s. I wanted to understand more about who he was, and who the other people around him were, and what the world might have looked like to them. Of course, there were many answers to that, but the search was a life-changing thing.

I am reading tomorrow from the pulpit at First Churches. It’s the publication party for Spider in a Tree. I’m reading a scene that takes place in the meeting house. In it, a slave, listening to words from an Edwards sermon, reflects on her own response to the word “works,” and, as those around her have bodily responses in the grip of awakening, feels the words as the exhalations of the room’s common lungs. It moves me to get to stand there, to offer my story in that air, even if, at the moment, the mike doesn’t work. Sharing physical space, in not time, with these characters has been part of the research from the beginning.

Yesterday when I was taking down the outline, one of the thumbtacks was stuck. I pried it out with my fingernail, newly cut for this about-to-be-public moment, and pressed the tender quick. It hurt just a little, but I started crying, for the release of this book, for the end of this decade of work, for the passage of time that yellow tape on the outline and extra, scribbled-in dates and years all over the top of it was trying to structure and contain. They were good tears. As Mr. Edwards might have said, I was improved by them.

For anyone who would like to know more about Jonathan Edwards, there are great riches at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale website. (This didn’t exist until I was some years into the novel, but now… so much there.)

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Susan Stinson is the author of three novels and a collection of poetry and lyric essays and was awarded the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize. Writer in Residence at Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts, she is also an editor and writing coach.